A week after President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring mask wearing by federal employees and anyone visiting federal facilities and lands, agencies on the southern Kenai Peninsula affected by the order are still working out the details of how this mandate applies to them.
Biden’s order said that federal employees, contractors and other people in federal buildings and on federal lands “should all wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures, as provided in CDC guidelines.”
The order also directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of the Centers of Disease Control to work with state, tribal and local leaders to encourage mask wearing and other public health best practices.
The southern peninsula has numerous civilian federal facilities: U.S. Post Offices in Homer, Anchor Point, Ninilchik, Fritz Creek and Seldovia, and the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center in Homer. The visitor center includes offices for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but the building is currently closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal land in Homer includes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service parcels that include the visitor center and a section of Bishop’s Beach at the mouth of Beluga Slough. A trail goes from the visitor center to Bishop’s Beach. Parts of Yukon Island and all of 60-foot Rock are in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
NOAA also has the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory near Jakolof Bay, a research facility run in cooperation with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The Kasitsna Bay Laboratory already has been following mask mandates, said Director Kris Holderied.
“It’s very much in line under the protocols we’ve been following under both university and NOAA guidance,” she said of Biden’s executive order.
The U.S. Coast Guard has two cutters in Homer, the U.S.C.G Cutter Hickory and the U.S.C.G. Naushon. It also has offices on the Homer Spit and the Homer Marine Safety Detachment in town on Pioneer Avenue. The Coast Guard already has face mask and other COVID-19 safety practices in place. The Marine Safety Detachment office also is closed to the general public.
The U.S. Postal Service has not yet determined how Biden’s order will apply to southern peninsula and national post offices, said James Boxrud, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service’s Western Region in Denver.
“The Postal Service is currently reviewing the recent Executive Order on Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask-Wearing,” he wrote in an email. “We continue to follow the COVID-19 mitigation strategies and measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and public health departments.”
According to the CDC’s guidance for businesses and employers, those guidelines include a recommendation that workers and customers wear face masks in public settings. It also includes guidance on cleaning, monitoring people for possible exposure to the novel coronavirus and quarantining if an employee is sick.
Last week, there did not appear to be any signs recommending mask wearing at the local Homer Post Office. The phone number at the post office was busy and it was not possible to leave a message on Tuesday to inquire how Biden’s order would affect the local post office.
The U.S. Department of Interior also is reviewing Biden’s executive order, wrote Karen Armstrong, acting chief of the Division of Public Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Falls Church, Virginia.
“The Interior Department will have additional department-specific guidance in the days and weeks to come,” she wrote in an email.
One issue raised by Biden’s executive order is whether a strict mask requirement applies to visitors recreating outdoors on federal land such as wildlife refuges.
Included in Biden’s order is a directive requiring the director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget to “immediately take action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, to require compliance with CDC guidelines with respect to wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, and other public health measures.”
On Sunday, Jan. 24, Aviva Aron-Dine, executive associate director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, released a memo that “agencies should immediately require masks and distancing consistent with current CDC guidance in all Federal buildings.” To provide guidance to agencies on how to stay safe during the pandemic, Biden also created a Safer Federal Workplace Task Force, according to the memo. Aron-Dine also directed agencies to develop COVID-19 workplace plans tailored to those agencies.
“Agencies should continue to ensure that all employees, on-site contractors, and visitors to Federal workplaces are aware of the requirement to comply with CDC guidelines, including with respect to wearing masks and following appropriate distancing practices,” the memo stated.